Legacy Admits: More Money, Lower Scores

August 4, 2008

Every year or so, someone takes on the idea of legacy admissions preferences -- the advantages some colleges give to applicants who are the children of alumni. John Edwards talked about it when he was a senator. The Price of Admission, a scathing book published in 2006, included legacy admissions among a series of practices used at elite colleges to favor the wealthy. When these attacks come, colleges defend legacy admissions in part by arguing that the significantly higher than average admit rates for alumni children don't suggest unfairness. The argument goes like this: Children of alumni are more likely to have gone to good high schools, to have been encouraged to study hard, and to have been taught at home the value of higher education -- so they are likely winning admission largely on their own merits, with maybe just a little tip among relatively equal applicants.

Research released Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association casts doubt on some of those claims, while drawing attention to the wealth advantages and lack of diversity among legacy admits at one elite institution, Duke University. The claim that alumni children compare favorably to the applicant pool as a whole and thus are admitted largely on their merits isn't challenged directly. Rather the study compares legacy admits to groups to which they are more similar: other applicants whose parents have gone to college. Among this group, alumni children don't fare as well, and those in the study entered Duke with lower academic qualifications and didn't do as well their freshman year (although they recover well from their slightly lower first year grades).

The study was prepared by Nathan D. Martin, a graduate student at Duke, and Kenneth I. Spenner, a professor of sociology there. They obtained information on two recent cohorts of Duke students, with data on various demographic characteristics and academic performance. While the data come from only one institution, the authors note that Duke shares characteristics with other elite colleges in the competitiveness of undergraduate admissions, the loyalty of alumni, and the use of legacy admissions preferences.

Several of the findings back the contention of critics of legacy admissions that the preferences act against diversity and in favor of wealth. Compared to other students who enroll at Duke, legacies are more likely to be white, Protestant and U.S. citizens, as well as having attended private schools. In terms of wealth, legacies are "considerably more affluent" than students whose parents don't have college degrees and also wealthier than those with parents who went to colleges other than Duke. Specifically, the pre-college household income of legacy students is about $240,000 a year -- which the study finds is triple that of students whose parents didn't earn a college degree and 44 percent higher than the average student whose parents attended college. Being black is associated with an 80 percent decrease in the odds of being a legacy student, the study finds, while being Roman Catholic or Jewish is associated with a 72 percent decrease.

While the study finds that legacy students and others with college parents come from advantaged backgrounds, in which cultural and educational activities were common, legacy averages on measures of academic performance suggest that they are less well prepared than other students whose parents went to college. For example, the average SAT score for legacies is 40 points lower than that of students with parents who have professional degrees and 12 points lower than that of students whose parents have college degrees. About 44 percent of legacy students -- compared to 32 percent of students whose parents have professional degrees -- are below SAT averages for the class in which they were admitted.

In their first semester, legacies perform on average two-tenths of a letter grade lower than students with professional degree parents and one-tenth lower than other students whose parents have college degrees. After the first year, however, the legacies close this gap. Beyond performance, legacies also differ from other students in what they study. Compared to other students, alumni children are less likely to study the natural sciences or engineering and are more likely to major in humanities.

In terms of post-graduation plans, the study finds that legacies aren't that different from other students, although they are slightly less likely to report plans to go to graduate school full time. One difference, perhaps not surprising, is that legacy students are more likely to plan on using personal connections in planning their futures. While 45 percent of students with professional degree parents say that they plan to use personal contacts in seeking post-graduation opportunities, two thirds of legacies plan on making use of such connections.

The study closes by noting that the legacy students do as well as other students -- once making up for their first semesters. But the study also notes that the socioeconomic data about legacy students shows how "an admissions preference for legacies clearly 'advantages the advantaged.'"

Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions, could not be reached for comment on the new study. But in a 2006 interview about the book The Price of Admission, he was asked about the allegation that Duke had (prior to Guttentag's arrival) encouraged "development admits" -- or those students whose academic credentials wouldn't get them in but who were attractive because of the potential of family members to donate. While he said Duke considered the development potential of "a small number of students," he stressed that he regularly turned down such requests for admission, and that he would never admit anyone not capable of succeeding in Duke's classrooms.

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